When Prof. Sid Watkins, who died Tuesday in London, wrote the dedication to his book Life At The Limit , Triumph and Tragedy in Formula One in 1996, he included – along with Jackie Stewart and Louis Stanley – the name Hugh Scully.
At the time, Scully was chief of staff and deputy surgeon-in-chief at Toronto General Hospital, professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, president of the Ontario Medical Association and founder of the Ontario Race Physicians Association.
Scully and Watkins – who served 26 years as the FIA Formula One Safety and Medical Delegate, head of the Formula One on-track medical team and first responder in case of a crash – were best friends and pals with a passion for motorsport.
Scully got involved in trying to make racing safer after a personal friend, Austrian F1 driver Helmut Koinigg, was killed at Watkins Glen in 1973 shortly after spending a week as a houseguest of Scully’s in Toronto. Watkins, a London neurosurgeon, was approached in 1978 by Bernie Ecclestone to help improve medical facilities at Grand Prix circuits.
Watkins and Scully worked side-by-side for years, along with American motorsport doctors Steve Olvey and Terry Trammell, on the International Council of Motorsport Science to improve safety in racing car design, restraint systems, helmets and protective clothing.
Those men are generally credited — particularly Watkins — with the huge improvements in safety over the last half-century in which world-class motor racing went from a highly dangerous pursuit to one that, today, is relatively safe.
Scully is now president of the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame and, in 2011, was instrumental in the decision to induct Prof. Watkins in the International category.
Watkins was unable to attend the ceremony because he was starting to suffer ill health. In recent weeks, his condition deteriorated and he was admitted to hospital in England.
On Sunday night, Scully flew to London to be with his friend. He was just in time.
Watkins was revered by the drivers and the F1 establishment because of his dedication and commitment to their health and safety. His most famous friendship was with the late Ayrton Senna, and the first chapter of his book deals with that awful weekend at Imola in 1994 when Rubens Barrichello crashed violently and both Roland Ratzenberger and Senna lost their lives.
In the book, Watkins writes (after telling Senna that Ratzenburger was dead):
"Ayrton was beside himself; he had not been close to death at a circuit before. . . . He broke down and cried on my shoulder. After all, why shouldn’t he? We had been close friends for many years, we’d fished together, we’d stayed with each other’s families– he was a part of my family – we had talked and worried together over many things common to us both in racing and in life.
"Now his head was on my shoulder and my arm was around him. I felt that I had to tell him what I thought. ‘Ayrton, why don’t you withdraw from racing tomorrow ? I don’t think you should do it. In fact, why don’t you give it up altogether? What else do you need to do? You have been World Champion three times, you are obviously the quickest driver. Give it up and let’s go fishing.’ He was silent. I went on. ‘I don’t think the risk is worth continuing – pack it in.’ He gave me a very steady look and, now calm, he said, ‘Sid, there are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit, I have to go on.’ Those were the last words he said to me."
As the news of Watkins’s death spread, drivers and others in F1 paid tribute, including Barrichello, Martin Donnelly, Mika Hakkinen, Gerhard Berger and team founder Frank Williams who all credited Watkins with saving their lives after they suffered serious accidents.
McLaren chairman Ron Dennis said Watkins was one of Formula One’s "true greats."
"No, he wasn’t a driver," said Dennis. "No, he wasn’t an engineer. No, he wasn’t a designer. He was a doctor and it’s probably fair to say that he did more than anyone, over the years, to make Formula One as safe as it is today."
I count myself most fortunate to have interviewed Prof. Watkins before he was inducted into the Canadian Hall of Fame. In an overseas telephone chat that was kind of all over the map, we talked about subjects as varied as safety in F1 and whether Sebastien Vettel is as good as everybody thinks he is.
We were talking about Vettel when he suddenly said: "Wait. Let me tell you about Nelson Piquet. Now, there was a naughty boy."
The context was this: Who, in Grand Prix racing today, is a really good bloke? Who’s got the best sense of humour? Who’s a cut-up?
And Watkins had replied, after thinking for a moment: "Barrichello, I suppose, is the most fun. He’s the one who’s usually up to the most mischief these days. But none of them holds a candle to Piquet."
Nelson Piquet won three world championships but is remembered almost as much for being a practical joker. Watkins remembered two incidents as if they happened yesterday, instead of in the 1980s.
"One time, the FIA president, Jean-Marie Balestre, was making an important speech on safety," Watkins said. "As he was talking, Piquet was standing beside him, emptying a litre of carbonated water into the pocket of his suit jacket.
"Another time, Balestre was standing near the front row of the grid. Piquet was standing behind him. Suddenly, a hand came up between his legs and grabbed him by the presidential balls!
"But Balestre wasn’t angry; he thoroughly enjoyed Piquet because he made people laugh."
I put it to the professor: what is the big difference between racing in the 1950s and ’60s, when many drivers were killed, and today? Is it the HANS device? Circuit design? What?
"There are two factors that you can’t separate," he’d said. "First are the improvements made in the construction of the car. The actual technique and materials used to construct the monocoque — carbon fibre, for instance — have saved many lives.
"The other is the control of fire. When I started in the 1960s, fire was a constant danger. In the Seventies, there was a fire at the Peterson accident (when Ronnie Peterson died at Monza), and Niki Lauda was badly burned (at the Nurburgring).
"There was a fire at the Paletti accident in 1982 (at the start of the Canadian Grand Prix at Montreal, in which Riccardo Paletti was killed) and then there was a fire at Imola with Gerhard Berger in 1989.
"But since then, we haven’t had a problem with fuel fires and that’s been an enormous step forward."
Watkins made mention of "starting in the 1960s," when he was a surgeon at University Hospital in Syracuse, N.Y.
"I used to go to the Can-Am races at Watkins Glen, the SCCA races there and, of course, the Grand Prix," he said. "The facilities were pretty primitive.
"For the Grand Prix, I used to take a team, just in case we had any bad trouble. I used to take an orthopedic surgeon, a chest guy, a plastic surgeon and an anesthetist. We used to take our own kit, just in case, because there was virtually no equipment in the medical centre at Watkins Glen. You brought your own stuff and you took it away.
"We were put to the test on more than one occasion. It was a good thing we were there."
It was during that period when he would travel to Mosport and Le Circuit-St. Jovite to enjoy the races — "I went as a spectator" — that he met "my great friend," Dr. Scully.
I asked Watkins if it was harder to drive a racing car in the "old days" as compared to today.
"I think it’s different," he said. "In the old days, they had physical demands. There was a general lack of security . . . it was a different level of driving. Nowadays, they’re extremely well protected; there’s so much automatic function on the cars . . . they’re really projectiles.
"In Clark’s and Stewart’s time, the mortality rate was pretty high. You had to have enormous courage to go racing every other weekend, knowing that you might not come back. Since 1994, we’ve been extremely fortunate (there hasn’t been a fatal accident in F1 since Senna died) and I don’t think the drivers even think about that anymore. It’s out of mind."
Watkins laughed when I asked whether Sebastien Vettel is the "real deal," as good as Jim Clark was in his era and Michael Schumacher has been in recent years.
"He’s obviously a wonderful driver, but (the professor’s voice rose here) "he’s also got a wonderful car. If you want to talk about drivers in poor cars, think of Stirling Moss, who drove all sorts of vehicles and drove them extraordinarily well, particularly when they weren’t the fastest.
"It’s a different dimension, really. People like Senna could make a bad car go quick. And so could Jimmy.
"Recently, we’ve seen Michael struggling. If you put Michael in the Red Bull, he’d be away like a shot! So we don’t know about Vettel because we haven’t seen him in a bad car yet."
Prof. Sid Watkins, doctor to the drivers and a friend to many, was 84 years old when he passed. He leaves his wife, four sons and two daughters.
The photo in the article is of Prof. Sid Watkins and Jackie Stewart in 1992 when presented the Labatt's Safety Award.